Sean Ledwith explains how classrooms are now the front line of the coronavirus class war
It is difficult to imagine what Downing Street thought would be achieved by sending out Michael Gove recently to assure teachers that schools will be safe environments by June 1st. No person is more guaranteed to have thousands of teachers across the land shouting at their television sets and filling the air with expletives than the former Education Secretary. Gove is without question the most hated politician to have taken that role in modern times and even now, the mere mention of his name is sufficient to make most teachers roll their eyes in exasperation.
During his tenure at the Education Department, Gove – along with his insidious minion Dominic Cummings – presided over a regime that increased the bureaucratic burden on staff and introduced new forms of stress-inducing tests on primary children. Numbers of teachers actively considering leaving the profession rose to record levels, inversely related to the dearth of graduates thinking of going into it. Gove has been a key figure in the last ten years of Tory control of the English education system that has seen the closure of Sure Start centres, abolition of the Education Maintenance Grant, cuts to free school meals and the rise of divisive academies and free schools. The notion that such a figure could provide any level of reassurance to teachers in the midst of a national emergency is beyond a joke.
The Johnson government has clearly decided that breaking the morale and resistance of teachers is a key component of its agenda to restore the profitability of UK capitalism, regardless of the cost in terms of lives. The state education sector is potentially facing the levels of devastation that has already been visited this year on hospitals and care homes. In the face of contradictory evidence from the British Medical Association and against the advice of the devolved administrations of the other UK nations, the government is intending to reopen primary schools on the first day of next month to pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. Secondary pupils scheduled for public exams in 2021 are also expected to return at some point before the end of the summer term. Laughably, Gove and his cabinet colleagues have justified this on the grounds of growing concern about pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds falling behind due to lockdown. Although this is a genuine problem, no one should be fooled by the hypocrisy of Tory politicians whose neoliberal agenda in education is premised entirely on accelerating class divisions.
The National Education Union, the UK’s largest teachers’ union, has played an exemplary role in spearheading the resistance to this reckless plan. None of its eminently sensible five criteria are currently in place for a return that would actually satisfy the concerns of many teachers: a significant downward trend in the number of corona cases; a coherent plan of social distancing in schools; readily accessible testing in schools for staff and pupils; strategies for responding to outbreaks in schools and plans for the protection of staff whose caring responsibilities make working from home the only realistic option. Legitimate concerns from teachers about the lack of available Personal Protective Equipment and the inherent difficult of persuading very young children to practise social distancing have been brushed aside with characteristic hubris by Gove and Gavin Williamson, the equally unconvincing current holder of the education portfolio.
Instead of coercing teachers to return to return unwillingly against their better judgement, a more progressive government would be considering how this breakdown of norms actually provides an opportunity to completely reorientate the direction of educational policy. The scrapping of all GCSEs and A Levels has forced the exam boards to turn to the judgement of teachers to produce appropriate grades for all students. This is a reminder that, in the minds of many educators, formative assessments by teachers produced throughout the year actually provide a more accurate indicator of progress than a terminal exam in the summer. The corona crisis could be utilised to shift the focus of formal assessment back towards a more collaborative approach in many subjects, based on students working both with each other and the teacher on coursework modules.
The case for the downplaying of formal assessment is even more compelling in the primary sector. Thanks to Gove’s top-down regime of high-stakes testing at Key Stages 1 and 2, the qualitative experiences of thousands of children in their first years of formal education have been damaged by a narrowing of the curriculum and an intrusive focus on targets and tracking. The weeks of lockdown have been a sobering reminder that nothing is more important than the physical and psychological wellbeing of children. Whenever classrooms reopen properly again, the prioritising of play and socialising for young children must outweigh the Gradgrind-mentality that the Tories have fostered.
Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also a UCU branch rep.